‘Tis the season for the press to call out movies that glorify smoking; a noble cause, given that studies prove smoking in movies promotes real-life smoking, especially in kids. But every time I see a new headline scolding (spoiler alert: you are about to learn which movie is officially the worst movie for smoking in 2012) Skyfall and James Bond, I can’t help but think: Why are we letting movie producers off the hook for all the other bad stuff–from junk food in movies to damaging beauty standards and objectification of women–when it’s arguably a much bigger threat to public health than smoking at this point?
The obvious answer is that there’s a lobby group pushing for stories about the worst smoking movie of 2012. Called ‘Smoke Free Movies,’ the group’s mission is to pressure Hollywood into ditching on-screen cigarettes. They told Health magazine that their system for rating movies is based on “tobacco impressions”–the number of times someone lights up in a film, multiplied by the number of admissions tickets sold.
Rating movies on that standard alone would suck up a lot of time and resources, but their work is also supported by the research of other organizations. A study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that for every 500 smoking scenes a kid sees in PG-13 movies, their likelihood of trying cigarettes increases by 49%.
Smoke Free Movies’ director, Stanton A. Glantz, PhD, told Health:
Movies made to be sold to kids shouldn’t be promoting cigarettes and condemning them to a life of nicotine addiction. Lung cancer kills more U.S. women than breast cancer. One in three kids recruited to try smoking by a movie will die from it.
But health experts almost unanimously agree that childhood obesity and obesity-related disease is our country’s biggest health threat. And for young girls, the lack of healthy role models–and danger of being encouraged to diet and even develop eating disorders in pursuit of emulating the ones they do see in movies–is at least as disconcerting as the possibility that they’ll pick up smoking.
A study this year showed that 96% of teen girls wish for a different body, and 54% of girls between 13 and 20 skip meals. According to MissRepresentation.org (a social action campaign based on a documentary that exposes how mainstream media contributes to the underrepresentation of American women in positions of power and influence), the number of cosmetic surgical procedures performed on kids 18 or younger more than tripled between 1997 and 2007, and up to 65% of women and girls struggle with an eating disorder.
And then there’s the topic of our country’s obesity epidemic–which studies have repeatedly tied to junk food, and advertising for junk food. That Pepsi deal Beyonce just signed is only the tip of the iceberg; product placement in film and tv is far more insidious, and you don’t need statistics to tell you that corporations wouldn’t shell out millions of dollars to put their can of soda in an actor’s hand if it weren’t a really great way of increasing sales.
This doesn’t at all mean that smoking is inconsequential, of course. Smoke Free Movies is an important agent in pressuring film producers to set a healthier example for the kids that watch their films. But if we’re going to scold Hollywood for smoking in movies, I think we should start scolding them for all the other–sometimes bigger–health threats that come as a result of the impression they make on kids. From fat-shaming to Pepsi-pushing, we should be paying attention to what we’re watching–and allowing our kids to watch–and how it impacts our health.